Washington, Nov 18 : Scientists have theorized that massive energy releases known as 'terrestrial gamma rays', which occur every day in the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere, are linked to lightning and result when high-energy electrons are accelerated upward over thunderstorms.
Though massive energy releases occur every day in the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere, unlike the well-known flashes of light and peals of thunder familiar to Earth-dwellers, these energy releases are channeled upward and can be detected only from space.
Our atmosphere protects us from the effects of this radiation, but the mechanisms at work can impact Earth's upper atmosphere and its space environment.
A new nano satellite mission, called 'Firefly,' sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, will explore the relationship between lightning and these sudden bursts, called Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes (TGFs).
NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO) first discovered TGFs in the 1990s.
Designed to look outward at cosmic sources of gamma rays, CGRO also caught rare but tantalizing glimpses of gamma rays coming from Earth.
TGFs are likely produced by beams of very energetic electrons, which are accelerated in the intense electric fields generated by large thunderstorm systems.
Before CGRO, many scientists thought these very energetic types of radiation could be generated only near the Sun, or in black holes, large galaxies, or neutron stars.
"These electron beams are more powerful than any produced in near-Earth space, and understanding their acceleration mechanisms will shed light on a physical process that may occur on other planets, or in astrophysical environments, as well as in the sun's corona," said Doug Rowland, principal investigator for the Firefly mission at NASA Goddard's Space Weather Laboratory.
Firefly will explore which types of lightning produce these electron beams and associated TGFs. In addition, Firefly will explore the occurrence rate of TGFs that are weaker than any previously been studied.
The result with be a better understanding of the effect that the millions of lightning flashes that occur worldwide each day have on the Earth's upper atmosphere and near-Earth space environment.
"This mission could provide the first direct evidence for the relationship between lightning and TGFs, and addresses an important research question in atmospheric electricity," said Anne-Marie Schmoltner, head of NSF's Atmospheric Sciences Division's Lower Atmosphere Research Section.
"Identifying the source of terrestrial gamma ray flashes would be a great step toward fully understanding the physics behind lightning and its effect on the Earth's atmosphere," Schmoltner added.